Thursday, February 23, 2017

An Excerpt from Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat

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By Joseph Rodney Dole II


In 2007, the International Psychological Trauma Symposium was held in Istanbul, Turkey.  It adopted “The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement,” which lists four criminal justice circumstances around the world in which solitary confinement is used:

As…a disciplinary punishment for sentenced prisoners; for the isolation of individuals during an ongoing criminal investigation; increasingly as an administrative tool for managing specific groups of prisoners; and as a judicial sentencing. In many jurisdictions solitary confinement is also used as a substitute for proper medical or psychiatric care for mentally disordered individuals. 
(Istanbul Statement, 2007: p. 63)

Solitary confinement has existed in some form or another for centuries.  Citing The American Encyclopedia the United States Supreme Court noted in an 1890 opinion that “the first plan adopted [using solitary confinement as punishment for crime]…was the solitary prison connected with the Hospital San Michele at Rome in 1703” (In re Medley, 1890: p 167- 168, 386). Similar to the isolation units today, the Court noted that it too was “little known” (Ibid.).  America began its first experiments with solitary confinement shortly after the birth of the country. In 1787, solitary confinement was used in the Walnut Street Penitentiary in Philadelphia (Ibid.).  Just three years later, “[i]n 1790, legislation authorized the construction of 16 small individualized cells at Walnut Street... where prisoners were kept in isolation” (Friedmann 2012: p1).

According to Sharon Shalev, who compiled A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, it was the “Boston Prison Disciplinary Society” which helped devise the 'Separate' or 'Pennsylvania'  System of Solitary Confinement” (Shalev, 2008: p 10) .  Under this system, “prisoners were held in solitary confinement and segregated from each other almost all of the time including during meals.  The Pennsylvania System was intended to induce penitence and reformation by providing prisoners with time alone to contemplate their sins” (Friedmann, 2012: p1).  Philadelphia was also home to America´s “first prison exclusively dedicated to solitary confinement” (Tietz, 2012: p3).  This was the Eastern State Penitentiary which was built in 1829 and served as “a model for more than 300 prisons in the United States and Europe” (Ibid.).

After decades of experience with solitary confinement though, people realized that “instead of its intended role of helping to 'cure the disease of crime, solitary confinement was creating illness in prisoners” (Friedmann, 2012: p 10).  This “played a central role in  the dismantling of the isolation prisons on both sides of the Atlantic by the late 19th century.” (Ibid.)   Although solitary confinement was still used as a management tool of the prison system,  entire prisons dedicated to isolation didn´t reappear until the latter half of the 20th century. 

The impetus for the return of prisons using large-scale isolation – the efficacy of which had been disproven decades earlier – was manifold.

The return began with the control unit.  Basically, the control unit is a prison inside a prison where all inmates are in solitary confinement of one kind or another (Kamel and Kerness, 2003).  As Bonnie Kerness noted in Win Magazine, “one of the first control units was established in the late 1960´s" (Kerness, 2009: p21).  It was located in San Quintin Prison´s O Wing (Ibid.).  It is commonly misreported that the first such unit was at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois in 1972 (Magani, 2008).  This can be attributed to how well these units are kept hidden from the public.  Marion established their “infamous H-Unit made up of cruel boxcar cells" (Kerness, 2009: p 21), after a guard was killed that year (Magani, 2008).  Numerous other states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts also established similar  control units in existing prisons around the same time (Kerness,2009: p21).

The rationale for these units was that a small portion of the prison population was uncontrollably violent and had to be kept isolated and secure to protect both staff and other inmates. Once established, though, prison administrators expanded the criteria to include: anyone they label as a gang member; jailhouse lawyers who garner the animosity of the administration by filing grievances or lawsuits in order to protect their civil rights; anyone they think might commit a staff assault; inmates who require protection from other inmates; illegal immigrants; and inmates who continuously break prison rules.  More often than not, the latter are mentally ill people who are incapable of following such a strict regimen.  Most people still think of only men being subjected to isolation, but America spares neither women nor children this punishment.  Although placing children in solitary confinement is a violation of international law (Clark and Maki, 2014), the practice is all too common in the United States (Liebelson, 2015).  From California to Florida, hundreds of women also languish in solitary confinement (Law,2014: p12).  Often it is because they are victims of sexual assault by guards (Ibid.: p 14).  When they report the assault, they are labeled trouble-makers as part of the cover-up and isolated in retaliation.  Therefore solitary confinement can go by many names – Disciplinary Segregation, Administrative Detention, Protective Custody, etc.  This is done in an attempt to disguise them from the public, but also makes it difficult to collect data.

Beginning in the 1970s, tough-on-crime rhetoric blossomed throughout the country. Accompanying this rhetoric were laws that made more crimes punishable with imprisonment and extended sentences and/or the percentage of time people must serve in prison. This resulted in severe overcrowding in prisons throughout the country. Additionally, the country´s hatred of prisoners caused it to abandon most attempts at rehabilitation. Therefore, most educational, vocational, and re-entry programs disappeared, leaving prisoners idle.

Furthermore, as Art Leonardo, the executive director of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, noted, “We began in this country to stop institutionalizing people who had mental illness.  We just put them in jail.  Jails are really not prepared or staffed in most cases to deal with them” (Associated Press, 2012).  Add to this toxic brew the passage  of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  This decimated a prisoner´s ability to seek redress for violation of their constitutional rights, thereby encouraging prison administrators and guards to violate those rights.  All of these factors contributed to rising levels of violence inside prisons.

Writing on the Bangor Daily News website, Terry Kupers and David Moltz explain that:

There was a good research showing that overcrowding and idleness result in sharp rises in the rates of violence, psychiatric breakdown and suicide in prisons. But instead of alleviating over-crowding, re-instituting rehabilitation, and finding somewhere that individuals suffering from mental illness could receive needed treatment, authorities took a wrong turn and reacted to the rising violence by locking down prisoners they castigated as “the worst of the worst” in their solitary cells.   
(Kupers and Moltz, 2010).

Over the next three decades, the nation went on a prison-building spree to try to keep up with the unprecedented increase in the prison population. Along with the increase in prisoners and prisons came in an increase of the number of prisoners who the administration deemed required isolation.  Therefore, not only did control units expand and multiply, but an entirely new segment of the prison-building  industry was created – the design and building of entire prisons dedicated to the complete isolation and control of prisoners.  These prisons took on the name of “supermax”.

The first supermax was Marion.  Instead of being built from scratch, though, it was an existing prison converted to pure solitary confinement in 1983 “when the whole facility went on lockdown after two guards were murdered there (Felshman, 2008).  Shortly thereafter, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) built the first contemporary prison dedicated solely to being a completely controlled environment when it built the ADX in Florence, Colorado (Eisenman and Reynolds, 2009).  By 1997 – the year that “California opened a supermax at Pelican Bay State Prison” (Felshman, 2008), and construction was completed on Tamms Supermax Prison less than an hour´s drive from Marion in Illinois – all but five states in the union, along with the District of Columbia, were operating control units, supermax prisons or both (Kamel and Kerness, 2003: p 2; Kerness, 2009: p 21; and Magani, 2008: p 3).

The nation is now to the point that, although solitary confinement has been around for centuries,  we use it more often and for longer periods of time than anyone else in the world ever has. Never before has it been used on such a massive scale and with such indifference towards the consequences for society at large. Although there were hundreds of prisons in the 19th century that used solitary confinement as their model, none of them were on a scale that they are today.   Mass incarceration is a current phenomenon and so too is mass use of isolation, where tens of thousands of people are isolated for years or even decades.

Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
Joseph Dole is 41 years old.  Born in Saginaw, Michigan, he moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  He has been continuously incarcerated since the age of 22, and spent nearly a decade of his life entombed at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in complete isolation (Tamms was shuttered in 2013 after an intense campaign by human rights groups, and the families and friends of prisoners who were confined and tortured there).

Mr. Dole is currently serving a life-without-parole sentence after being wrongly convicted of a gang-related, double murder.  He continues to fight that conviction pro se, and has recently uncovered evidence suppressed by the State, which proves that the State´s star witness committed perjury on the stand.

His first book A Costly American Hatred (available as both a paperback and e-book) is an in-depth look at how America´s hatred of “criminals” has led the nation down an expensive path that not only ostracizes and demonizes an evergrowing segment of the population, but is also now so pervasive that it is counterproductive to the goals of reducing crime and keeping society safe;  wastes enormous resources; and destroys human lives.  Anyone who is convicted of a crime is no longer considered human in the eyes of the rest of society. This allows them to be ostracized, abused, commoditized and disenfranchised.

Mr. Dole´s second book, Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat, details how long-term isolation units not only pose grave threats to inmates, but also guards who work there and society as a whole.

 He has also been published published in Prison Legal News, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, The Mississippi Review, Stateville Speaks Newsletter, The Public I Newspaper, Scapegoat and numerous other places on-line such as and among others.  His writings have also been featured in the following books: Too Cruel Not Unusual Enough (ed. By Kenneth E. Hartman, 2013); Lockdown Prison Heart (iUniverse, 2004); Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People´s Gude to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (James Kilgore, 2015); Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (The New Press, 2016).

Mr. Dole´s artwork has been displayed in exhibits in Berkeley, CA, Chicago, and New York.  He has also won four PEN Writing Awards for Prisoners, among others.

He is both a jailhouse journalist and jailhouse lawyer, as well as an activist and watchdog ensuring Illinois public bodies are in compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more of his work on his Facebook Page

He will respond to all letters.

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